For the last year or so, much of my writing on TLT (and in other outlets) – and my focus as an advocate – has been devoted to the long-running battle over school food nutritional standards. But now it looks like a very reasonable, bipartisan compromise may be on the horizon. Here’s what it might look like:
Back in 2010 Congress adopted greatly improved school food standards, which received bipartisan support as well as the endorsement of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of 55,000 school food professionals.
But in 2014, the SNA surprised many observers by undergoing an abrupt about-face, embarking on an aggressive lobbying campaign to weaken school meal nutrition. Specifically, the SNA sought to: gut the new whole grain standard from 100 percent “whole grain-rich” to 50 percent; halt further sodium reductions in school food; and revert to the old system under which kids could pass up all fruits and vegetables a lunch, instead of being required to take a half-cup serving.
While some speculated that Big Food (which funds half of the SNA’s operating budget) was behind this push, Politico‘s Helena Bottemiller Evich found that, by and large, the food industry had little interest in weakening the new standards, to which it had already conformed its products at considerable expense. Instead, the SNA’s main allies in this fight were House Republicans, which meant that school food, historically a bi-partisan issue, became quite politicized.
Even amidst a charged political atmosphere, however, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) have managed to broker a compromise that, to my mind, is a real victory for our kids. Later this morning, the committee will vote on a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill – the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 – which includes the following provisions:
- Whole Grains: The parties have settled on an 80 percent whole-grain rich standard, which means that at least 80 percent of grain foods served in schools must contain at least half whole grains, but 20 percent of those foods may contain only refined grains. This change would allow schools to serve items like white rice or a white tortilla once a week. While not ideal from a nutritional standpoint, this strikes me as a reasonable compromise.
- Fruits and Vegetables: To my mind, this was one of the most important issues under discussion. While I’m mindful of the need to minimize food waste, I was strongly opposed to letting kids pass up fruits and vegetables, instead creating an all-beige tray on a daily basis. So I was quite pleasantly surprised to learn that bill still requires children to take a daily half-cup serving of fruits and vegetables, while also tasking the CDC and the USDA with providing guidance on the use of salad bars and so-called “sharing tables” (on which kids place the fruit and vegetables they don’t want to eat) to minimize waste and ensure food safety. That’s great news!
- Sodium: Under the compromise, schools will get an extra two years to reach the next level of sodium reduction (Target 2), and in 2019, a study will be conducted to determine whether the final level of reduction (Target 3) is scientifically warranted, as well as the impact of the Target 2 level on school meal programs.
- A La Carte Foods: While the “Smart Snacks in School” rules greatly improved school competitive food, some school food operators have complained that they limit the sale of nutrient-dense but higher calorie items like hard-boiled eggs (remember all the discussion about those?), hummus and low-fat pizza. Accordingly, the bill would establish a working group to come up with a proposed list of exempted, nutrient-dense food foods for sale a la carte.
- Other Items: Here’s a laundry list of other items addressed by the bill, which includes provisions to: authorize a loan guarantee program for school food service equipment; double funding for Farm to School grants; require USDA to develop a plan to encourage the use of salad bars; and establish a School Nutrition Advisory Committee. The bill would also require studies on: best practices for nutrition education; training and technical assistance to help schools serve healthy food to kids; and if the varieties of milk served in schools affect milk consumption. And it would allow struggling schools a three-year transition period to move from serving canned, frozen, and dried to fresh fruits and vegetables in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
Reactions to the Compromise
In a press release issued last Friday, SNA President Jean Ronnei said the organization “was pleased to work alongside USDA in crafting practical solutions to help school nutrition professionals in their ongoing efforts to improve school meal programs for students. In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students.”
For a great round-up of opinion from food advocates, as well as further analysis of the bill, be sure to check out Dana Woldow’s piece in Beyond Chron.
The bill is scheduled for a Senate Agriculture Committee vote later this morning, at 10am EST, which you can watch live here.
Helena Bottemiller Evich, writing for Politico Pro (subscriber-only), outlines the next steps for the compromise: “Following Wednesday’s scheduled markup of the bill, it’ll just be up to the House to strike its own compromise — which may be easier said than done – or sign onto the Senate version, which the committee says has the support of the White House.”
Needless to say, I’ll keep you updated here.
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